Wise Up


Date Published: May 13, 2021

Monika Ardelt, PhD, has spent her career studying an ideal that’s as universal as it is elusive: wisdom. And like many wisdom researchers, she’s concluded that we don’t necessarily become wiser as we age. Many people even become less wise. It’s a troubling thought, not only because wisdom is associated with resilience and life satisfaction, but also because if we’re not becoming wiser, what exactly are we becoming? Dr. Ardelt explains why wisdom matters and offers thoughts on how to cultivate it, including in moments of adversity.

Monika Ardelt, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida.

Podcast Transcript 

Host: 00:00
From the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. This is Road to Resilience, a podcast about weathering adversity. I'm Jon Earle. My guest today is Dr. Monika Ardelt. She's a Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida. Dr. Ardelt is among a small group of scholars that study something I didn't even realize you could study until recently. She studies wisdom. What is it? Where does it come from? And why does it matter? Dr. Ardelt is also interested in the relationship between wisdom and adversity, which is how she came onto my radar. I wanted to ask her how wisdom helps us weather adversity, and under what circumstances adversity itself leads to wisdom as opposed to just empty suffering. And, of course, I'll admit what I really wanted to know was, how can we become wiser? Dr. Ardelt touches on all of this in so much more in our conversation. I hope you enjoy it. Monika Ardelt, welcome to Road to Resilience.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 00:58
Thank you.

Host: 00:59
I know scholars don't agree on a single definition of wisdom, but you have a definition that's fairly widely used and it consists of three components. So I was wondering if you could just take us through those components and maybe give us an example of each one.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 01:11
Yes. So I define wisdom as a combination or an integration of cognitive reflective, and compassionate dimensions. The cognitive component: When you think about wisdom what comes to mind? For many people, when they think about wisdom, they think about, oh, wise people know something, they know something that other people don't know. So what do they know? They know about things that are related to life. They know about the deeper meaning of life, and they know about things that are related to how to interact with other people. And they know themselves. So wise people don't necessarily know the latest research on quantum physics or something, this is not what wisdom is about. Wisdom is about how to live a good life, how to live the flourishing life. What should you do to live a good and flourishing life?

Host: 02:19
So to make sure I understand, the cognitive—it's not just that you know something intellectually. Everybody knows we're mortal, but wise people know it deeply. They know it in a special way.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 02:30
Exactly, exactly. And this gets me then to what the philosopher John Kekes said. He says that what wise people know everybody already knows. So for example, humans are mortal. We already know this, right. And yet we really don't understand it at all. We live our lives as if we were immortal, or at least as if I was immortal. Maybe you die, but not me! I'm immortal. You're 90 and suddenly you realize you're dying, it's like, what?! What happened? Why me? Well, you're mortal. Oh. Oh, okay. And so really often people don't get it until the very end. And wise people get it earlier.

Host: 03:23
It's almost as if they know all the averages that are so tired. But they know it deeply. They know it actually to be true and they act on it. They live in a way that's consistent with these old sayings.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 03:35
Yes. They understand the deeper meaning of these truths. It's not just, okay, I know it and I know this and this. And that's the reason why you can't just read books about wisdom that will make you wise. It's not enough. You really have to live it and to become wiser in the process. So how do you get it? And I think that's the reflective dimension.

Host: 04:06
So this is the second dimension of the three dimensions.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 04:07
That's the second one, right. And I define the reflective dimension basically as looking at phenomena and events from different perspectives, from multiple perspectives. But this also includes looking at yourself from a different perspective. So from the observer's view. And one of the things, this self-insight that happens, I think that you realize that, hmm, I might have the same faults as other people have. Because it's so easy to see these faults in other people. "Look at all these selfish people that are running around! They're all so selfish. Not me. I am so altruistic!" And then you look at yourself and say, "Oh, wait a second. Maybe I'm selfish, too. Maybe I'm looking out for myself, too." And all these others. "Oh, look at this. I'm angry, too. I'm prejudiced, too." All these things. And to admit this. And by being able to see one's own faults and not just being self-critical, overcritical, but to say, "Alright, I'm not perfect. And that's okay. Because other people are not perfect, either. And that's okay." So you become more tolerant toward yourself, but also toward other people. And that's where the compassionate dimension comes in.

Host: 05:36
The third dimension.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 05:36
The third dimension. You develop compassion and sympathetic love toward the faults of other people, but also your own. Self-compassion, I think, is also a component of that.

Host: 05:51
Wisdom researchers do not agree on a definition, but they all seem to agree that we do not become wiser as we get older. And I want to highlight this because to me it adds urgency. It's not just like you can live your life and assume you're going to get wiser some day, because we all associate wisdom with older people. No, you actually might have to try to get wiser. So what is the relationship between age and wisdom?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 06:19
Yes, it's true that aging, that getting older by itself will not make you wiser. But it is also true that wisdom comes with experience. But experience might be necessary, but it's not sufficient to become wiser. So the missing ingredient is learning from experience. And that seems to be harder than one might think. Because a lot of people have a lot of experiences—everybody has experiences—and particularly experiences of hardship and crisis in life can make you wiser if you learn something from it. If you learn, for example, that everything is changing. If you learn, for example, that people are mortal. If you learn to reorganize your priorities and see what is really important in life. So yes, the major thing is learning from experiences, and not everybody necessarily does this. The other thing, I think, what happens is also, and that's from my research, that has shown that there is a curvilinear relationship between age and wisdom, and it peaks in late midlife and then goes down again.

Host: 07:44
So about how old?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 07:45
Fifties, 60s and then goes down again. But it also depends on education. With higher education there isn't necessarily a change. However, what goes down is the cognitive element, and the way I measure it is a desire to know, is a desire to to learn about the world. And it might very well be that at one point, people just say, "I'm done. I know everything that there is to know, and I'm done. I'm not curious anymore." And then that goes down. Interestingly, the compassionate dimension of wisdom, I found the opposite. That was actually a U-shaped form. So that had been down in midlife, but then it went up again in old age. And that might be that people do become more compassionate, particularly if they have grandchildren and more forgiving and tolerant toward others.

Host: 08:48
It squares with reality. I mean, we all know older people who seem to become big-hearted and generous and compassionate and remain curious. But we also know people who, understandably, I have to say, with physical disability become angry and smaller, and their world shrinks. And that all squares, I feel like, with my own experience with older people.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 09:09
And I think that's exactly what happens. If things happen in a way that they were not as planned, because people often have plans for retirement and then things happen and people cannot reconcile with this. They're just very disappointed in things. Or they get disabled much earlier than they would have thought, or get an illness or something like this. And I think that's where people don't reflect on others, but we really are more concerned about themselves. And this is how the wisdom score can decline.

Host: 09:49
This gets at a really core question, which is: Becoming wise is not automatic. And it's hard work. So why should somebody bother? Why should we care? Why should we try to become wiser? I mean, you're already speaking to one answer, which is life satisfaction in old age, but talk about some of the other advantages to being wise or becoming wise.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 10:16
So it's not just well-being. It's not just life satisfaction. It's not just this feeling of contentment, which I think is pretty good already. But it also leads to a feeling of mastery over things that you can control and equanimity over the things you cannot control. So really kind of a Buddhist notion, to accept things. Or the prayer—.

Host: 10:47
The serenity prayer.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 10:49
Serenity prayer, exactly right. The wisdom to know the difference, what you can control and what you have to accept. Exactly. But also, wise people do know what the deeper meaning of life is, which is quite satisfying because then you have your compass, you know what you need to do in life. You're not floundering. What is it? What do I need? Do I need to have the most money or stuff? No. It is actually about becoming a better person, becoming a better citizen, a better fellow human being. So, yes. So there's more, there's more than just feeling good. Because you can feel good. Here's the thing—you can feel good after you had a great meal, or a nice evening with friends, or you see a show, or you go on a nice trip. This feels good. But what happens if you cannot have this anymore? This is why it's really important in old age. Because in old age, a lot of these external things that provide happiness are often taken away. And to remain content, that requires wisdom. When people are at the end of life, when people are seriously ill, when people are disabled—to remain content requires wisdom.

Host: 12:18
We've talked about experiences. And I want to drill down into experiences because I think this is where resilience comes up. We know, I think, intuitively that when an adverse experience happens, it can lead to growth and it can lead to suffering, and it can lead to some combination of both most likely. And so we've already talked about the importance of experience and learning from experience in a certain way. And so I was wondering if you could talk to that and get into what determines what will happen after an adverse experience.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 12:53
Yes and they are different models. Glück and Bluck have this MORE experience model, and they are saying it depends on the resources that you go into when you encounter a critical life experience. And the MORE experience model is: Mastery, how much mastery do you feel you have over the event; Openness to experience; Reflectivity; and also Empathy, so having empathy and emotional regulation. What I think is, yes, all of this matters—openness to experiences, clearly, not closing down, but seeing opportunities. When something happens, "What can I do to make it better?" Rather than, "Alright, there's nothing I can do. I'm just staying there and being devastated." No, there's almost always something you can do. And so it's looking at the opportunities, what can be done? And emotion regulation is very important—trying to stay on an even keel, even so knowing that these things happen. And clearly if bad things happen, people feel bad. That's perfectly natural. But one of the things that you learn from Buddhist philosophy is that things change. Things don't stay the same. And so you can accept, "Yes, I feel depressed because this happened, I feel angry. I feel anxious. But I also know this will change. It will not stay." And so you're not holding onto it. And just say, "Okay, I accept it. I'm very angry now," or, "I'm very depressed now. But I know this will change, so I just wait for it to change." And so that gives you hope in some ways. Yes, it will change. And then the other thing that I think is sometimes ignored is social support. Do you have social support? I think that matters a lot. Other people who support you in some way or the other. And depending what the issue is, I think societal support can really help in terms of supporting people to grow in wisdom rather than being completely devastated.

Host: 15:12
I know you've studied wisdom and physicians. Can you share what you found from that study?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 15:18
This is actually more Margaret Plews‐Ogan's study, and so I was a part of it, but not the major contributor. So there we were looking at physicians who committed medical error, and what helped afterwards. And looking at the physician who scored relatively highly on three-dimensional wisdom, what helped was primarily being able to say, "Yes, I made this medical error. Yes, I'm human. I'm not God." And so to accept this and having other colleagues—and again this is social support—having a safe space to talk about this. Being able to go to the patient and say, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake. What can we do to fix this?" And the physicians who were able to go to the patient and say, "I'm sorry. I made a mistake. I screwed up. What can we do?" They often found that the patient was forgiving. They'd say, "Alright. Let's fix it." And they were not suing. But if nothing was coming from the physician, they were prevented from doing this, then they would sue because they felt abandoned.

Host: 16:34
Let's talk to somebody who's listening and who is now convinced that it is important to become wise, not just for well-being, but for all the reasons that we've talked about, what can that person do? What do we know from the research about what that person can actually do to become wise?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 16:49
I think two things. One thing is when anything challenging or negative happens in life, to stop, breathe deeply, and really look at, "Okay, what can I do?" Rather than giving into despair and just going down this path of depression, anxiety, anger. To say, "Okay, something happened. What does it mean? What can I do? What do I learn from it? And how can I find a positive path out of it?" So that is one thing. And that's actually what Pascual-Leone said—this is one person who also studied wisdom—he said there are two pathways to wisdom, and this is one. What he calls "ultimate limit situations." These are situations that if they don't kill you, they make you wiser. But they might kill you! I would say it's not just the ultimate limit situation. You can actually learn from any negative experience. And one very simple one is you're driving in traffic, somebody cuts you off. The natural reaction, at least for me, would be, "Argh! Why is this person cutting me off?! What a bad person!" Or you can say, "Alright. Person cut me off. Maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he was really late for a meeting, or who knows what. Fine. Be okay with it." Start with the low-hanging fruits before you get to the really big ones. But the other thing, and this is also what Pascual-Leone says, is meditation. Having a regular meditation practice means that you take yourself out of everyday life and give yourself some space to reflect, to be with yourself, and just let it happen. Whatever there is. And there are different meditation techniques. And just accept what is. I think meditation gives you a time out to be able to learn to accept what is. And so one of the studies actually found that, yes, people who meditated for a very long time did have higher three-dimensional wisdom scores than just beginners. So meditation seems to do something.

Host: 19:28
Do you feel like we're living in an unwise society? Or a society in which it becomes harder and harder to be wise? I've heard you asked about social media, for example, and the political bubbles that people end up in that make it harder to see other people's points of view. We talked a little bit earlier about the situations that seem to support somebody becoming wise. So what do you think about that?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 19:57
So openness to experiences is really one of these that has been shown to be a predictor of wisdom. And if you live in your own bubble, it's harder to be open to experiences. And of course with social media, it becomes worse and worse because the recommendations that you get are part of your bubble. And so you're not really exposed to other people. So in terms of do we live in an unwise society? I'm not sure about this. I see both strands. I think there is a desire for wisdom. There is a desire for mindfulness, for example, it has become really popular. Then we have the other side, where even empirical reality is questioned, where truth completely disappears and it's not valued anymore, or you can just make up your own truth. And that, I think, is very antithetical to the cognitive dimension of wisdom, because the cognitive dimension of wisdom is about finding out the deeper truth of what is, and not just making up your own truth. So that's misguided. And you have to get through this, therefore the reflective dimension, to get to a deeper truth. And so to give up on truth, I think, is a very big mistake. So it's divided. Some people on this side, but I see a lot of hope, too, and a desire to become wiser.

Host: 21:31
There are so many mysteries, I think, remaining when it comes to understanding what wisdom is and how it comes about. I was wondering if you could pick a single one that if you could wave a magic wand and understand something, what would it be?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 21:50
Well, I tell you what I'm getting interested in right now, it's organizational wisdom. And the question is how can we infuse organizations with wisdom? And that's what I'm really getting interested in because with climate change threatening our very survival, I think that's really needed. And then how can wisdom enter into the political sphere, for example? How does this happen?

Host: 22:22
Do you have any initial thoughts on how an organization, for example, might become wise?

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 22:27
I think it has something to do with the leader and the intention of the leadership. It's not just one leader, it's the intention of the leadership to, depending on the size of the organization, of course, what is the intention? Why does this organization exist? Does it exist to make more money for the shareholder and that's the only thing that we care about? Or is an organization there to actually serve others in some ways by providing goods that are helpful for others, by providing health care for others, by providing a service to others that others need. And with this intention, if you have the intention of doing good for others, then I think it becomes, again, this ripple effect. Then you look not just at your customer, not at your stakeholders, your shareholders, you also look at the environment. What we do, does it threaten the environment in any way? Then it's not good, then we need to change it. And you look at your workers. It's not about profits in the end, it's about people. And if we change this kind of thinking, I think then the world will really be a better place and we will not go extinct because of global warming.

Host: 24:00
I think that's a great note to end on. Thank you so much, Dr. Ardelt.

Dr. Monika Ardelt: 24:04
Well, thank you so much for inviting me. I enjoyed my conversation with you.

Host: 24:07
Dr. Monika Ardelt is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida. That's all for this episode of Road to Resilience. The podcast is a production of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. It's made by Nicci Cheatham, me, Jon Earle, and our wise executive producer, Lucia Lee. From all of us here, thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.